This post is adapted from a presentation made by Stephen Kelley, historic preservation specialist for the interior restoration team at the State Capitol, to the State Capitol Repair Expenditure Oversight Committee on August 9, 2018. In the fall, painters will begin applying the new color scheme to selected areas inside the Capitol for the purposes of a mockup. Mockups are used by the design team to gauge how the colors interact with their surroundings. By completing a small mockup section first, tweaks can be made before investing time and resources into painting a larger area.

Sir Bernard Fielden, the late British preservation architect, said that “Conservation seeks to prolong the life of cultural property and if possible to clarify the historic and artistic message without loss of authenticity.” Conservation (restoration and rehabilitation as we call it in America) is the effort to preserve, but must address the need to manage change. Preservation and change are the yin and yang of historic preservation.

The construction of the Oklahoma State Capitol began in 1914 with great fanfare. However, the start of World War I in Europe led to immediate material shortages. For example, there was much debate about whether the new Capitol should have a dome. In August 1916 Governor Robert L. Williams, the third governor of the State, said, “I do not think the time is right just now for spending that much money when the state is in need of so many other necessary and useful institutions.”  Ultimately, a low saucer dome with an art glass oculus topped the rotunda.

The construction contract between the Capitol Commission and James Stewart & Company required that the legislative chambers and committee rooms be complete by December 1916 and that the entire building be finished by August 1917. It opened on schedule, but the U.S. entry into World War I on April 6, 1917, led to economizing the decorative motifs and dampening any celebration of the new statehouse. There was no grand reception.

The materials that architects Layton & Smith selected for the Capitol combined practical, inexpensive elements, such as concrete, with aesthetically pleasing, expensive finishes, such as marble flooring. Material shortages caused by the War nixed high-level finishes in favor of more affordable and less ostentatious materials. Most importantly, stone wall finishes that were planned in the Rotunda and surrounding public spaces were replaced by scored plaster to create the illusion of stonework. The architects specified that “walls and ceilings [would be] painted white, which … lowered costs by eliminating a complex polychrome paint scheme.”

The interior design of the Capitol today has a remarkably high level of authenticity. The primary public spaces retain much of their original volume, configurations, and materials with the central rotunda as the primary organizing element. The high dome addition, although not original, completes an original design tenet and enhances this authenticity.  One century later we have the unique opportunity to complete the interior multi-color paint scheme in a manner that would have been consummated had the completion of the Oklahoma State Capitol not collided with the overriding needs of the Great War.

As we know state capitols operate as compartmentalized areas of influence broken into Executive, Senatorial, House, Judicial and other administrative “ownership” spaces making it a daunting task to handle design in a unified manner. Our interior rehabilitation project offers us the unique opportunity not only to complete the original design intent, but to do so throughout the building in a harmonious and authentic manner.

The multi-color paint schemes presented by the interior restoration team (Manhattan Construction, FSB, and Evergreene Architectural Arts) are based upon comprehensive archival and physical analysis of original era paint colors plus those that were introduced during the 2002 dome construction and harmonizes these paint schemes throughout the spaces of the building. In this manner, we can clarify and enhance the historic and artistic message of the original builders and maintain the high degree of authenticity of the Oklahoma State Capitol.

To see renderings of the new color scheme, click the links below:

2nd Floor Rotunda

2nd Floor Supreme Court Corridor

4th Floor Rotunda 1

4th Floor Rotunda 2

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